Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?


How Much Alike?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” (Mark Twain)

Back in the early 90s of the last century Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Ann  Druyan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that bears directly on what Mark Twain had said nearly a century before. In that book the authors stress the similarities between humans and other animal species, perhaps with the object of letting some of the air out of human puffery.

Aristotle insisted that humans are “rational animals,” thereby seeking to differentiate our species from the rest because of our abilities to reason, our use of tools and also our use of language. Subsequent studies have shown that many other animal species can not only reason, and even use tools, but also many of them do so remarkably quickly; some even use language. There have been studies of chimpanzees that have not only learned several hundred words but have shown and  ability to teach that language to their young! Jane Goodall studied the amazing Lucy, a chimpanzee brought up by humans who showed many of the signs of being human herself:

“No longer pure chimp but yet eons away form humanity, she was man-made, some other kind of being. I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned on the set, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine, she identified [in Ameslan] something she saw. . . .”

This doesn’t sound, to my ear, much different from the description of a great many humans we can observe pretty much any day, a condition that has been worsened by the addition of mind-numbing electronic toys that are putting our minds to sleep and causing even greater Lucy-like behavior. But the one thing that Sagan and Druyan missed when trying to make the case for the similarity between humans and other animal species, was the presence in humans of the capacity to act morally.

In saying this I am aware of the studies that have shown macaque monkeys, for example, that are unable to inflict pain on others of their species, refusing treats when asked to turn a dial that will increase an electronic charge connected with another monkey and causing him to scream in pain. They simply will not do this. This would appear to be evidence of a moral sense, a determination to do the right thing. And it is in sharp contrast with studies of humans put in the same, or similar, situations who are perfectly willing to turn the dial and inflict pain on other humans when asked to do so by another human in a white coat.

However, the behavior of the monkeys does not show the presence of anything more than an instinct to act, or refuse to act, in a certain way. It provides no evidence that there is a reasoning process involved. On the other hand, humans have a reasoning capacity and, as Kant insisted, also the capacity to ask the pivotal ethical question “what ought I to do?” And yet many of them will turn the dial. This would seem to prove Twain’s thesis stated at the outset of this post: we are inferior to other creatures. But does it?

What the experiment shows is that some humans are simply unable or unwilling to do the right thing — not that they could not do so under different conditions. Kant does not say that humans always do the right thing, he says we have the capacity to do the right thing. Often we do not do it. And this does help Twain make his case. Moreover, as Sagan and Druyan note at the conclusion of their careful study:

“The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability.”

And yet we are the species who now have nuclear arsenals at our disposal, weapons numerous and powerful enough to end all life on earth. In addition, in this country any certified moron can walk into a gun shop with a credit card and ten minutes later walk away with an automatic weapon with the capacity to kill dozens of other humans in a matter of seconds. And our only solution to this situation is to insist that more morons arm themselves against the possibility that they might be the next target. This seems to be the best we have been able to come up with so far, though if this plan were to be realized it would surely mark the end of any pretense that we are a civilized society and announce to the world that we have once again returned to a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do agree with Kant that humans have the capacity to act morally and that this is what separates us from the other animals on earth. But the evidence is overwhelming that increasing numbers of us tend not to exercise that capacity and are becoming less and less inclined to do so as our species becomes more numerous, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others. However, if we fail to exercise our inborn capacity to do the right thing we have no instinct to fall back on, as do the macaque monkeys. This is a difference that makes a real difference.


After reading Lionel Trilling’s excellent essay insisting that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park oughtn’t to be dismissed as her weakest novel I was inspired to visit the novel again. I must admit I had thought, along with many another critic, that of all her novels this was indeed the poorest. With Austen, of course, even her weakest  novel would be gradations above the novels of so many others, but still, it simply didn’t seem to rank up there with Pride and Prejudice. Trilling shows that Austen herself started writing Mansfield Park almost before the ink was dry on the pages of her greatest novel when she thought it could have been even better — an urge that lead her to start writing what she regarded as a more balanced novel.

Whether one agrees with Trilling or not, and the argument can get a bit hairsplitting at times, a tempest in a teapot if you will, Austen points us in a direction we seem to have too long ignored. In her novels, all of them, we are forced to admit that manners are what makes the person. Character and good manners go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated from one another. Ortega y Gasset reminded us in the 1930s that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” and Norbert Elias, in his study of The Civilizing Process insists that civilization is nothing more and nothing less that the awareness of others and the “consideration of what others might think.” In a word, the civilizing process involves “restraint and the regulation of elementary urges.” The notion that others matter, that we have obligations to others is the common thread in what we loosely call “good manners” — as it is in all of Austen’s novels.

When a man opens a door for an elderly person, or gives up his seat on a crowded bus; when a neighbor turns down the radio or television out of consideration for others who might be disturbed; when one avoids saying what one thinks because it might hurt the feelings of the listener; when a speaker refuses to interrupt another speaker; in all these cases, we see self-restraint at work along with the “regulation of elementary urges” — good manners. Edmund Burke saw them as the stuff of morality.

Franny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is the embodiment of good manners, the civilized person. She has been torn away from her poor family at the age of nine to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt one hundred miles away. She suffers separation anxiety in the extreme because of the sudden change and her one link to mental stability is the care and concert of her young cousin Edmund who, alone among all the other “upper crust” people she nows lives with, cares about her and shows compassion and concern for her suffering.  In the eyes of her new family, except for Edmund, she resides somewhere between the servants and themselves. One of her aunts relegates her to an attic room and tells the servants not to light the fire.

As Fanny grows older and her love for Edmund deepens and her sensitivity of others around her increases — including her three other cousins and her aunts and uncle — she becomes an attractive and fascinating woman. Indeed, a “gentleman” of considerable fortune by the name of Henry Crawford sets out to make Fanny fall in love with him, purely out of boredom, only to fall helplessly in love with her himself. He makes her an offer of marriage, an offer Fanny repulses — to the distress of her relatives. She sees him as the embodiment of all that is wrong with those around her, an “uncivilized” man; she sees

“. . .a want of delicacy and regard for others. . . .a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned — And, also, has always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”

In fact, the pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed Henry Crawford is the embodiment, along with his sister Mary, of what Trilling calls “the modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence.” In other words, in Trilling’s view Mansfield Park is about pretense, personality in the place of character, the tendency so many have to pretend they are something they are not for lack of sound moral principles to form a solid core of self. Fanny and her cousin Edmund are, among all the characters in the novel, the only two who are genuine and honest, the only truly civilized people among a host of others who either pretend to be so or who are past caring.

And this is where  a novel written in 1816 can be seen to be a commentary on our own age and culture, an age and culture in which the self and its pleasures have become the center of concern for the greater part of humanity and the Other has been lost in that preoccupation with self that sees good manners as archaic and somehow irrelevant — and who view honesty as not an obligation we have to ourselves and others but simply a matter of letting it all “hang out.” All of which places us in the category of those who in one way or another revealed themselves to Fanny Price as people who are locked within themselves, showing a lack of principles “to supply as a duty what the heart is deficient in.”


In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

Good Habits

In a comment I made to a recent post I noted that in my view many faculty members I have known, including myself at times, are a bit too lax when it comes to demanding that students toe the line — that they read the assignment and turn in papers on time. In my own experience, the temptation is to give the students a break, especially the good ones, the ones who usually do the work on time. But, as I noted in my comment, this does not serve the student well when he or she graduates — and it does not serve the business well for whom that student goes to work. It’s all about good habits, and they must be learned. And our colleges don’t do a very good job encouraging them, preparing the students for the so-called “real” world.

Aristotle notes that the example of parents who are fair, honest, and decent people will, if they encourage those traits in their offspring, usually raise children who have what used to be called “good character.” Good character is formed by imitation and habit. And if the examples are not there or the reinforcement is not consistent, the chances are the young person will turn our with weak character and perhaps worse.

These are old-fashioned ideas and we are all too quick to toss them in the bin simply because they are old-fashioned, instead of considering whether, perhaps, they are not a good thing to hang on to. But, then, this takes work on the part of parents and teachers and the former are too busy with their own lives these days and teachers are asked to do far too much to ask them to also raise our kids. So character has become something only folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. mention in speeches, not something that we work to develop in the young.

In any event, I do think that teachers in the schools — from the early years right through college — should hold the feet of their students to the fire. They should demand that they get the work done on time and that they develop those habits that will carry them to success when they later graduate or should they continue on in school. I studied with a number of very bright fellow graduate students who failed to earn their PhD simply because they lacked the discipline to get papers finished on time or never were able to complete their dissertation. Allowing students to slack off is doing them no favors, though the temptation is greater today then ever, since student evaluations are made public on the internet and students are encouraged to take classes from “easy” professors. Enrollments can determine such things as job security for the professor. Even tenured professors can be “let go” if it is determined that their department needs to be cut for financial reasons. Thus, there is every temptation to “go easy” on the students. As far as the students are concerned, this translates into a much easier path and they know well how to tread it.

Again, it’s a matter of habit: it’s what they have become used to. And it’s not the kids’ fault. It is the fault of those adults who have shirked their responsibilities to those kids and not taken the time to instill in them the habits of good character that will bring them success later in their lives. I speak generally, of course. But I do think it is a safe claim. Teachers want to be well-liked (who doesn’t?) and they want to hold on to their jobs; the temptation to give way in the face of what are often very poor excuses is great indeed. It is easier to say “yes” even though when a student is allowed to turn a paper in late, for example, it is clearly not fair to those other students who have met the deadline, and, of course, it can become a habit. Indeed, there are a great many reasons for doing the right thing in parenting and teaching. But we all tend to take the path of least resistance. It’s the road well-travelled and we think we are doing the kids a favor when we clearly are not.

And, again, I include myself in this indictment. I was guilty of allowing the better students greater leeway than I should have done. Mea culpa! Good character, and good work habits, come from setting a good example and demanding that the young develop good habits. And it will make the students more successful employees when they graduate and find work.

Good People Doing Good Things — More From Youth Service America (YSA)

Amazing kids. There is hope! Another stellar post from Jill Dennison.

Filosofa's Word

Last Wednesday,  I highlighted a man (Steven Culbertson) and his organization (Youth Service America – YSA), and I promised to come back this week to highlight just a few of the kids and projects this wonderful organization has helped launch.  I am so encouraged when I see these young people, read about how they see it as their responsibility to help others, help the environment.  The first young man I would like to introduce you to is one that Mr. Culbertson mentioned last week, Jackson Silverman.  Jackson got his start in philanthropy, with the help of YSA, at age 12!  I will let Jackson tell you a bit about it …

“My brothers and I are lucky.  When we get hungry, we know that we will get fed.  But not every kid is so lucky.  A kid doesn’t have a lot of choice about hunger.  A kid can’t make their…

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As a rule I mute television commercials. I can’t stand most of them as they send us all subconscious messages from multinational corporations that seek to entrap the will and bring about the purchase of something we simply do not need. Some are clever and I try to listen to them, just for a laugh. But there is a new Apple iPad commercial that I happened to listen to recently, because I was remote from the remote, and that commercial gets my goat!

The commercial shows a middle school teacher assigning homework to his class, presumably on a Friday, and a voice-over starts intoning the message “Ugh, homework. I hate homework.” The style of the commercial is reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story and perhaps that is what they were going for. It shows the kids having fun, playing and larking about, at times with their iPads (presumably suggesting that homework on iPads can be fun? Or perhaps the kids are just checking social media?), while all the time the voice tells us repeatedly how much they all hate homework.

And we wonder why our kids are falling behind the students of nearly all of the other so-called “developed” nations! This sort of anti-intellectualism, which is all-too prevalent in America and has been for many years, determines that those children will never catch up to the rest of the world. We know the public schools are under attack and the data show that we draw those into public school teaching who are in the bottom third  of the students in our colleges. They are paid a pittance and asked to raise the kids in addition to teaching them — or, most recently, arming themselves against possible terrorists. And if we now start to send the message that they should not assign homework — presumably because the kids don’t like to do homework — we simply add fuel to a fire already threatening to go out of control.

Homework, like it or not, helps young people deepen their knowledge of the subject matter after an all-too-short school day — in addition to acquiring the skills of self-discipline and self-denial, which we all dearly need. It also helps them to become independent learners instead of just recipients of the teacher’s bits of knowledge. To be sure none of us wants to do work of any sort — which is why we are paid, I suppose. But work is necessary and homework in the schools is a necessary component of the load the student is asked to bear. And let’s face it, that load is not back-breaking. We seem to be asking our students to do less and less due to the fiction that they are under so much pressure already. And at the same time grade inflation convinces them that the work they are doing is stellar when, in my experience and from what I have read, it is generally sub-par. The result, of course, is our age of entitlement.

Needless to say, this is an issue close to the heart of a retired college professor who has read and thought about education at all levels for many years (and blogged endlessly, some would say). I have even written a book about the current condition of education in this country and it has always been a concern of mine — because it is a problem that can be solved if we simply put our minds to it. If tiny Finland can do it, we certainly can! Initially it would require that we somehow stop the mindless attacks from the political Right against public education and determine to put a much larger share of the annual federal and state budgets into education thereby attracting better teachers and showing them that education matters.

In any event, the attack on homework by a corporation determined to sell more electronic toys to a generation already stupefied by those toys is a compound felony in my view. I have always thought Apple a cut above the rest, but I must now revise my views. At the same time I will continue to worry about the present state of education in this country, convinced as I am that it holds the key to the success or failure of this democracy. And I will continue my practice of muting the commercials.